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Leen Kawas Discusses the Importance of the Environment

Leen Kawas, Ph.D., tries to look at many things in life a little differently.

The company she co-founded, Athira Pharma, continues to research promising drug therapies, including one that combats Alzheimer’s disease, a progressive and fatal form of dementia that is on the rise globally.

While many of Athira’s competitors have focused on how to un-do the damage in the areas of the brain where tissue is deteriorating and degrading, Dr. Kawas instead decided to look at how to boost the overall performance of the brain, including seeking innovative ways to build new paths and networks.

Dr. Kawas has been unique in other significant ways too. While there is a relatively small number of women in leadership positions in the biotech space, Dr. Kawas was the first woman to take a biotech and technology company public in Washington State, and, as of February 2021, one of only 22 female founders and CEOs to lead their company to an Initial Public Offering.

Her interest in doing more than many think is possible goes back years. She gave up her career as a pharmacist in her native Jordan to continue her studies in the U.S., where she not only earned a Ph.D. in molecular pharmacology and toxicology but a degree in executive education.

She credits a lot of this “thinking big” approach to her mother, who encouraged her at an early age to challenge norms whenever possible, along with sharing the very inspirational message: “the sky is not the limit.”

Environmental Approaches

Along with exploring possibilities in Alzheimer’s research, Dr. Leen Kawas has been seeking innovation in helping the environment.

This includes looking for methods and tools to clean up past contaminants as well as developing new best practices to make sure the planet remains clean, safe, and hospitable for future generations.

Interestingly, she’s found that the best way to accomplish this on a global scale is to focus on one person at a time, figuring out how to shift individual behavior – whether in a corporate environment or one’s personal life. This contrasts with some common methods by corporations to spend plenty on worldwide initiatives, which may not change hearts and minds of individuals.

“I focus on helping people. That should be something that really applies to everything you do, if you’re working to help patients live longer and better lives,” she said. “It’s not only about health, but also about the environment they’re living in.”

This approach is more holistic than some ‘Green’ approaches in terms of making the planet more sustainable. Some companies focus on specific approaches, such as pulling out trash or improving the soils and waterways. Individual projects like these are certainly a good start, but they can all benefit from a larger vision.

“…even if [a certain initiative] doesn’t impact us now, it’s going to impact future generations. It’s important for organizations to remember that.” she said.

Dr. Kawas encouraged and still encourages this type of sustainable thinking at home and at work. People who want to help can start out small and soon their efforts will become ingrained behaviors. Behaviors that are effective in the workplace can also lead to changes at home – and more people advocating for positive change.

This commitment can even start with reducing paperwork at the office.

“If I see someone printing on paper, even if it’s just 10 pages, I think of the number of people in one organization, who all might be thinking, ‘it’s only 10 pages,’” she said. “It’s a much bigger problem.” Dr. Kawas goes on to state that she believes that even if you start small on a personal level, you can influence others to be mindful.

Corporate leadership can have an important role in educating the staff and being a positive role model.

“Even if it’s a small team in a company, you can send a message showing people that conserving is doable,” she said. “You can have a much greater impact if you’re not limiting yourself to saying, ‘well, we’re just a small company [so it doesn’t really matter].’”

With encouragement and inspiration from leadership, individual employees who may have been unsure about what direction to go might find a way to follow.

“People will become more conscientious if [sustainability is] part of our vision and the way we do things,” she said. “Everything we do is for our patients – for people – so conserving helps in a much larger way.”

Other Examples

One of the exciting things about Dr. Kawas encouraging those around her to be more mindful of their impact on the environment is that there’s no roadmap for how to get there, or a guide describing what adventures can be had along the way.

This means that all companies may (and should) be trying their own methods to improve sustainability and better use of resources.

Rather than being competitive, these efforts can create opportunities for collaboration, and traditional business competitors can come together to pursue a mutual goal.

Some of notable efforts include from Patagonia, where conservation and sustainability is at every level of the organization. The company’s leaders are public in their commitment to the planet, and often donate large sums to environmental causes. Customers are discouraged from throwing out damaged items. Instead, they can send them in for repairs or visit the company web site for specific tips on repairing them themselves.

Shoe manufacturer, Adidas, invites customers in Brazil to bring in their worn-out shoes into any store that sells the brand. If they donate them, they can receive a discount on new shoes, while their old ones are kept out of the waste stream and instead shredded and used as a building material.

Computers and similar electronics are especially unwanted in landfills due to all the heavy metals, so there’s a push to find alternatives. Dell helps people with unwanted computers to find donation centers or non-profits near them. Individuals can also mail in electronic components to them, or trade in an old Dell for a gift card for a future Dell purchase.

Once companies start thinking in terms of wanting to do more, there’s no end to the solutions, everything from reducing packaging to encouraging – and rewarding – customer behavior.

As Dr. Kawas puts it, the sky doesn’t have to be the limit.


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